Brazil’s #metoo moment: Spiritual guru accused of sex abuse

ABADIANIA, Brazil (AP) — For over 40 years, spiritual healer Joao Teixeira de Faria drew people from all over the world to this small city in central Brazil, offering treatment for everything from depression to cancer.

His work was both praised — Oprah Winfrey called de Faria “inspiring” while visiting in 2012 — and heavily scrutinized. Now, de Faria, who goes by the name “Joao de Deus,” or “John of God,” is in trouble with the law.

Since December, more than 250 women including his daughter have come forward to allege abuse that ranged from being felt up during treatments to rape. The mounting accusations are turning the 77-year-old spiritual guru into Brazil’s first major figure to go down in the #metoo era, which has been slow to take off in Latin America’s largest nation despite myriad problems with gender equality.

Meanwhile, the people in Abadiania, about a two-hour drive west from the nation’s capital of Brasilia, are in disbelief. They also fear for their futures without de Faria.

“All of Abadiania depended on the work of Joao,” said Claudio Pruja, the owner of a small inn who also sometimes worked as an assistant to de Faria. “We don’t have a beach. This isn’t Copacabana.”

Indeed, de Faria’s pull was so strong that the much more affluent “new” part of the town, built in the years since the healer opened his clinic in 1976, stands in sharp contrast to the older, run down part of town: There are brightly colored houses, swept streets, hotels with ATM machines inside — a rarity in small Brazilian cities — as well as specialty boutiques that cater to tourists and police constantly patrolling.

By some estimates, his “casa spiritual,” or “spiritual house,” attended to 10,000 patients a week. It was there that de Faria, who over the decades came under sharp scrutiny from critics who deemed him a charlatan, performed “psychic” surgeries that he said could heal a wide range of maladies.

Sometimes treatments were based on prayer, and sometimes they involved minor cutting into the body.

In 2012, Winfrey visited de Faria’s center and interviewed him for her talk show, writing about the experience of seeing him cut into the breast of a woman without anesthesia.

“An overwhelming sense of peace” is how she described the experience in a column that has since been deleted on oprah.com.

Winfrey has issued a statement saying she sympathizes with the alleged victims and hopes they get justice.

According to more than 250 women, it was during the healing sessions that de Faria molested them or began grooming them for what would lead to forced sexual contact outside the clinic.

Luciano Miranda, a public prosecutor, told The Associated Press that his office had received testimony from women from six countries: Brazil, Germany, Belgium, Bolivia, the United States and Holland.

De Faria’s victims were of all ages, and he would often begin by turning off the lights and asking for a massage, Miranda said.

“The biggest fear of victims was not being believed,” Miranda added. He said some of the women said they held off talking publicly about it for years because of worry they “could lose their husbands.”

The scandal erupted when several women talked about their experiences on the show “Conversa com Bial” in December, leading to an avalanche of similar accusations in the weeks that followed.